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If you make it through the first five minutes of The Savages, wherein a frustrated, confused old man writes his sentiments on the bathroom wall with, well, you know what, then you are in for a gently challenging, ultimately hopeful movie experience.

In last week’s review of Lars and The Real Girl, I referred to of actors who typically play pent-up, tightly wound characters in pent-up, tightly wound little independent films. In The Savages, out on DVD, we have two of the finest in the business playing their muted best: Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Fortyish siblings John and Wendy Savage refuse to grow up (as their Peter Pan-inspired names would suggest.) Wendy works a series of temp jobs and wastes office supplies endlessly applying for grants in order to chase her dream of playwriting. John has chosen “college for life” and teaches theater. In the romance department, neither sibling is getting anywhere. Wendy is involved with a married man with no intention of leaving his wife. John has a longtime live-in, a Polish prof he loves, but whose visa has expired. He refuses to marry her.

And yet, each is content in their little bubble…until their lives turn upside down. Their perpetual adolescence is shattered by the fast-forward disintegration of their elderly father (Phillip Bosco.) Seriously, the first ten minutes is tough to watch as we see Dad’s dementia destroy every bit of his dignity (the bathroom wall is just the beginning.) Sadly, he has enough of his mind left to witness his own degradation.

In coming to terms with what to do with the old man, John and Wendy each think their stale lives is more important, and that the other should make the sacrifices. Each stands his ground, however, and the resulting friction causes cracks wide enough for growth and change to seep through.

Obviously, this isn’t the delightful whimsical tale that Lars was, but it is a good story (Oscar-nominated, in fact.). If you happen to be 40, and thinking ahead to that thing we must all face, it’s sure to hit home. It definitely drags you through the hard choices, but ultimately leaves you hopeful. Rent it!

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Ever heard of a Real Doll? I beg you not to Google it, especially if you are at work. A Real Doll is a shockingly lifelike…partner…for lonely men. You might recall they made one of Kelly Carlson on FX’s demented “Nip/Tuck“…though it’s a wonder they had any silicone left over from making the actual Kelly Carlson to construct a doll! Anyway, forget everything you may know (or suspect) about these dolls, because it’s not that kind of story.

In Lars and the Real Girl our shy and painfully backward hero lives a life apart. He is an enigma to his co-workers, the folks at church, and even to his brother and sister-in-law, who live in their inherited home while Lars chooses to sleep on a cot in the garage. One day UPS unloads a crate at the house, and that evening Lars announces he is bringing a guest to dinner. Smash cut to stunned relatives staring at Lars seated at the dinner table next to a sex doll…a doll he considers real in every way.

The town shrink advises his family, co-workers and the townsfolk play along in hopes of helping Lars work through and shake this delusion. That commitment, and the healing that ensues play out in ways that constantly surprise us, because it never gets weird or hokey or over-the-top. The script by Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) is subtle, sweet and hopeful and truly deserving of its Best Original Screenplay nomination.

Lars is played by Ryan Gosling, seen previously in his Oscar- nominated turn as the strung-out teacher in “Half Nelson.” Other prominent names include Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, actors who typically play pent-up, tightly wound supporting characters in pent-up, tightly wound little independent films. This, along with the bleak Canadian winter, really sets a stark tone for the proceedings. The sterile isolation of the picture’s opening presents a startling contrast to where Lars and the entire town eventually end up. Maybe too startling to be entirely believable (and not all the film critics were on board) but I found myself gladly going along for the ride.

Bottom line: A film about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll…that you could recommend to your mother? I’m as surprised as you are. So, get thee to a video store and rent the hell out of it!

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